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T HE T HEORY OF S OCIAL R EPRESENTATIONS :

W HENCE AND W HITHER ?


Robert M. Farr
London School of Economics and Political Science, Great Britain
Marie Jahoda (1972) has a simple test of the value of any theory. Does it enrich or impoverish the scope of psychology? If the theory enlarges the scope of the discipline by incorporating interesting and complex new phenomena within the purview of psychology then she
welcomes it. Freud's theory of the unconscious clearly meets with her approval in this
respect. If, however, the theory restricts the scope of psychology either by focusing on a
narrow range of phenomena or by being highly prescriptive in regard to the use of a particular method of research then it meets with her disapproval. Behaviourism and gestalt psychology incur her censure in this respect. She was always critical of the over-reliance of social
psychologists on experimenting.
Does the theory of social representations pass this particular test? Clearly it does, but only
in part. In my view it has enriched social psychology by enlarging its scope. It has made
social psychology an explicitly social discipline and restored its links with other social
sciences such as sociology and anthropology. This, as I hope to show, is no mean achievement. It has produced book-length studies like La Psychoanalyse: Son image et son public
(Moscovici, 1961/76), Un Monde Autre: L'enfance: De ses reprsentations son mythe
(Chombart de Lauwe, 1971/1978), L'ge des Foules: Un trait historique de psychologie des
masses (1981) and Folies et Reprsentations Sociales (Jodelet, 1989) which are without
parallel in any of the other social sciences. Social psychologists in departments of psychology in Europe and America rarely write such books. This is because, as Marie Jahoda
observed, they study a very restricted range of phenomena. Their typical unit of output is an
article in a refereed journal. The rewards of the academic system, especially here in Britain
and also (I suspect) in America, encourage this form of productivity. To embark upon
writing a book can be a form of academic suicide in some contexts. To write a book that
wins the critical acclaim of other social scientists, however, is an event that is extremely rare
in the history of social psychology. Yet Moscovici has recently achieved this signal distinction with the publication of La Machine Faire des Dieux (Moscovici, 1988) for which he
was awarded the prestigious Amalfi prize. Clearly this French tradition of social psychology,
which Moscovici inaugurated over three decades ago, has enormously enriched not only
social psychology but also other social sciences. In this respect it passes the Marie Jahoda
test with flying colours.
The Marie Jahoda test, however, relates to psychology and not to social psychology.
Much remains to be done, in my view, to persuade psychologists, as distinct from social
psychologists, to accept the theory of social representations. This, I think, is the real challenge. The most difficult part has already been achieved i.e. the development of a form of
social psychology that is explicitly social. Now the challenge is to get this accepted by nonsocial psychologists. The strategic next step, in my opinion, is to persuade social psychologists in America to accept the theory. This is because they are a sophisticated and powerful
community of scholars and researchers in social psychology who remain deeply sceptical
Papers on Social Representations - Textes sur les Reprsentations Sociales
(1021-5573) Vol. 2 (3), 1-138 (1993).

R. M. Farr

about the value of the theory of social representations. If we cannot persuade them of the
utility of the theory then we might as well abandon the task of persuading psychologists in
general to accept it. Moscovici and I, both separately and jointly, have expended a good deal
of effort in recent years to achieve this objective with, as yet, little or no evidence of success
to reward our efforts. I have recently been studying the history of social psychology in
America and I now think I better understand why the task is proving to be more difficult than
either of us envisaged at the outset.
Moscovici has been more successful than I have been in this regard. His work on minority influence, for example, is generally accepted within American social psychology. In part
this is because it challenges the conventionally received wisdom in that country concerning
conformity and the maintenance of the status quo. In part also, I suspect, it is because the
research is in a format that social psychologists in America are used to accepting i.e. it is
based on a series of experimental studies carried out in laboratory. Whilst it is gratifying to
see this evidence being accepted by other experimentalists, there is a real danger that the topic
of minority influence will become separated from the rest of the theory. The experimental
programme merely demonstrates the feasibility of such forms of influence.
To understand why minority influence is important it is necessary to understand the wider
theory of social representations. Whilst the experimental programme is important its object of
study is trivial from a historical perspective namely, a series of blue/green slides and
whether the subjects who participate in the experiment hear others describe each slide as
either blue or green. When it comes to scientific theories, however, rather than perceptual
judgements about discrete stimuli, the matter is not historically trivial. Freud, Marx, Darwin
and Einstein, for example, when they were developing their various theories were in a
minority of one, yet, over time, they succeeded in changing the collective representations of
their peers concerning the nature of the world in which they were living. This form of
minority influence, which is an integral part of the study of social representations, needs to
be studied over a longer time scale and by other means than the laboratory experiment. It is
not possible to study such changes in the collective representations of an age purely within
the confines of a laboratory. Such a study belongs to the Geisteswissenschaften and not in
the Naturwissenschaften. In a number of respects Moscovici's study of Le Bon (Moscovici,
1981a) is just such a study. He shows how someone (namely, Le Bon), who is marginal to a
number of sciences, creates a new science i.e. the psychology of the masses. Moscovici then
goes to show how dictators, of both the political right (like Hitler and Mussolini) and the
political left (Lenin and Stalin), this century have put Le Bon's theory into practice. Dictators
need a representation of the masses they lead and Le Bon provided them with an appropriate
form of social psychology. Moscovici's study is inevitably a historical study and not an
experimental one. Both kinds of study, however, are needed in relation to the theory. Unfortunately those who read and are influenced by Moscovici's laboratory studies of minority
influence (such as experimental social psychologists in America) rarely bother to consult or
even read a book like L'ge des Foules: Un trait historique de psychologie des masses and
those who read or are influenced by the book rarely consult or even read the experimental
literature. Tant pis. Both communities of readers miss a lot.
In the article with which I started Marie Jahoda (1972) compares and contrasts psychoanalysis and social psychology. Both held early promise of enlarging the scope of psychology by introducing subject matter of a complex and interesting nature. In the case of psychoanalysis there was Freud's theory of the unconscious. In the case of social psychology there
was the possibility of studying such socially significant issues as fascism and anti-semitism.

The Theory of Social Representations: Whence and Whither?

The highwater mark, for Jahoda, in collaboration between psychoanalysts and social scientists was the publication of The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik,
Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). Much of the work subsequent to this did not live up to the
early promise of either psychoanalysis or social psychology. She expressed disappointment
in the performance of both at the time of her review over two decades ago. This was
because, at least in the UK, psychologists remained hostile to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, too, had developed largely independently of academic psychology. Behaviourism and
gestalt psychology had restricted the scope of psychology and of social psychology respectively. In addition social psychologists depended too heavily, in her estimation, on a single
method of research namely the laboratory experiment in order to explain social phenomena.
I mention Marie Jahoda's account of the impoverishment of social psychology in the early
1970s because I believe her criticisms would not apply to the theory of social representations. The theory at that time was little known outside of its native France and so it did not
feature in her review. It is a theory in which multiple methods are used to study the same
phenomenon and so no one method is privileged above all others (as the experimental
method was in American social psychology). There is no royal road to the study of a social
representation. At the time I did not share Jahoda's pessimistic appraisal of the state of social
psychology. Indeed I subsequently wrote a rejoinder in defence of the state of experimental
social psychology (Farr, 1975). I think, however, she did correctly identify two forces that
led to the impoverishment of psychology namely behaviourism and gestalt psychology. I
wish now to demonstrate why I think she was essentially correct in her analysis before I go
on to argue that the theory of social representations is the perfect antidote to the state of
impoverishment of social psychology as she described it at the start of the 1970s.
Behaviourism is the chief reason for what Graumann (1986) has called "the individualisation of the social". This is a process whereby theories and concepts which initially are
explicitly social can turn out, over time and on closer inspection, not to be social at all. From
the outset French research on social representations has constituted an important critique of
the individual nature of much so-called social psychology in America and the UK. What I am
seeking to explain here are the historical reasons for the individualisation of the social in the
development of social psychology in America. Graumann identifies F. H. Allport as the chief
architect of "the individualisation of the social". In his highly influential textbook Social
Psychology (Allport, 1924) Allport sought to establish social psychology as both an experimental and a behavioural science. If psychology is the science of behaviour then the only
ultimate reality is the behaving organism, i.e. the individual. There is no psychology of the
group that is not also at one and the same time a psychology of the individuals who comprise
it.
Many European thinkers, including Wundt, Durkheim, Freud, Saussure, Le Bon and
McDougal, distinguished between phenomena at the level of the individual and phenomena at
the level of the collective. The distinction between the two levels was necessary because laws
that held at one level did not necessarily hold true at the other level. Wundt distinguished
between physiological psychology and social psychology; Durkheim between individual
representations and collective representations; Freud between clinical studies of the individual
and a psychoanalytic critique of culture; Saussure between "parole" and "langue"; Le Bon
between the behaviour of the individual and the behaviour of the masses; McDougall between
the biological organism and the "group mind" (or national identity and character). Allport
differed from all of these thinkers in believing that, as one moved from the level of the

R. M. Farr

individual to the level of the collective it was not necessary to change one's model i.e. it is
possible to explain events at a collective level in terms of one's model of the individual. This
is a strong form of reductionism that often goes with a positivist philosophy of science.
F. H. Allport was a powerful critic of anyone (whether social scientist or journalist) who
appeared to assign agency to any entity other than an individual. The public do not think
only individuals express their opinions; the voters do not decide only individuals cast their
votes. He reserved his fiercest criticism, however, for McDougal for appearing to suggest
that groups, as distinct from individuals, possess "minds". In the 1930s F. H. Allport was a
stalwart supporter of public opinion polling. It was entirely consistent with his own brand of
methodological individualism. Mrs. Thatcher could well have been paraphrasing F. H.
Allport when she said "There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and
families".
The important point to note here is that individualism is already a detectable force in the
historical development of social psychology in America in the period between the two world
wars. The chief engine for the individualisation of the social during this period was, as
Graumann (1986) correctly observed, behaviourism. It was not the only such engine at work
during the same period. Allport's brother, G. W., also individualised the social, but from a
more cognitivist perspective. Jaspars and Fraser (1984) note how G. W. Allport selectively
edited out collective and social components in the various definitions of attitude that he considered, in his classical chapter on "attitudes" for the Murchison Handbook of 1935, before
defining attitude as an individual predisposition to respond. Jaspars and Fraser point out that
in the Chicago of the 1920s social attitudes and social representations were but different sides
of the same coin. Attitudes were the subjective side of culture. Culture corresponded to
"collective values" or "collective representations". G. W. Allport, in his editing, converted a
collective representation into an individual representation and it has remained that ever since.
Confronted with such historical evidence Moscovici (1981b) is quite happy to describe his
theory of social representations as a form of "retro-revolution" i.e. as a return to a time in the
history of social psychology in America when the main theoretical terms in social psychology
were more explicitly social than they have been in recent decades.
The process of the individualisation of the social continued well into the post-World War
II era. During this period it assumed two quite distinct forms. The first comprised an extension to the other social sciences of what, in the inter-war years, had occurred within social
psychology. The social sciences became known collectively as the behavioural sciences.
Essentially this was a ruse to obtain adequate funds for research. Politicians who vote public
funds for research are likely to confuse social sciences with socialism. This was especially so
during the McCarthy era at the start of the Cold War. Opposition to the granting of such
funds would be much less if they were known collectively as the behavioural sciences. This
was a successful strategy but there was a price to pay for it. The social sciences became less
explicitly social as a consequence. In Europe this did not happen to anything like the same
extent. The social sciences retained their theoretical purity but at the cost of being seriously
under-funded. Behaviourism did not become as strongly entrenched in Europe as it was in
America and it did not spread to the other social sciences to anything like the same extent.
This is relevant to my argument in two respects. If it becomes necessary to re-socialise social
psychology in America the answer is unlikely to come from the other social sciences in
America since they have been infected by the same virus of positivism (or behaviourism, to
cite the form that positivism assumed in the human and social sciences) as social psychology.
The best antidote is likely to be a European form of social psychology such as Moscovici's

The Theory of Social Representations: Whence and Whither?

theory of social representations. Just as Californian vines helped to re-vitalise French viticulture after the scourge of phylloxera so the theory of social representations might help to resocialise American social psychology (Farr, 1989).
Marie Jahoda shrewdly linked gestalt psychology with behaviourism when she spoke
about the impoverishment of psychology. This is the second form that the individualisation
of the social assumed in the post-World War II era. This came about as a consequence of the
migration of the gestalt psychologists from Austria and Germany to America when Hitler
rose to power in 1933. A couple who had emigrated just before that date i.e. Koffka and
Heider were prevented from returning to Europe by the series of events that unfolded there
leading to the annexation of Austria in 1938 and the outbreak of war in 1939. The full effect
of the gestalt psychologists on the development of social psychology in America was not
really evident until after the end of World War II. If the roots of modern social psychology
are part of the Western (mainly European) intellectual tradition then, as G. W. Allport (1954)
noted, its flowering "is a characteristically American phenomenon". The gestalt psychologists made a significant contribution to the flowering of social psychology in America. This
is not the place to spell this out in detail.
What is relevant to our theme, however, is that they constitute a second wave of the individualisation of the social beyond that described by Graumann (1986). Coming on top of the
first wave this had an even more dramatic effect. The mechanism whereby the social became
individualised this time round was perception rather than behaviour. This comprised the
"view of the world" approach to the study of attitudes compared to the "consistency of
response" approach that was preferred by the behaviourists (Campbell, 1963). The gestalt
psychologists had not encountered behaviourism until the arrived in America. When they did
encounter it they were opposed to it. It was this opposition that led to the peculiar flowering
of social psychology in America in the post World War II era. A number of the gestalt
psychologists became social psychologists in America and then only in the context of American behaviourism. They had not been social psychologists back home in their native Austria
or Germany.
The co-existence of two individual perspectives does not constitute a paradigm especially
when they are incompatible with each other. This is the structural flaw that lies right at the
heart of American social psychology. If you approach the individual from the outside this is
the perspective of the observer of others. This is behaviourism. If you approach the individual from his or her own perspective this is the perception of the actor in the social scene. This
is gestalt psychology. According to Jones and Nisbett (1972) these are two divergent
perspectives. They are also given divergent forms of individualism which, taken together, do
not constitute a social science. Campbell (1963) explains how the "view of the world"
approach to the study of attitudes came to prevail over the "consistency of response"
approach. Thanks to the influence of the gestalt psychologists social psychologists in America were cognitive theorists at a time when it was not fashionable to be one i.e. in the heyday
of behaviourism. Social psychologists were interested in the study of representations but
these were individual representations and not social or collective ones. Social psychology in
America is so thoroughly individualised that it is difficult for social psychologists there easily
to take on board the notion of social and collective representations. This, as I see it, is the
next challenge. If social psychologists in America accept the theory of social representations
then one is more than half-way to persuading psychologists in general to accept the theory.

R. M. Farr

I think the augurs are good that this first step will be successful. A bridgehead has been
established but the campaign has scarcely begun. The separation between academic disciplines in the social sciences at American universities was virtually complete by about 1925
(Manicas, 1987). This was before the various phases in the individualisation of the social
described in the preceding paragraphs. Autonomous traditions of social psychology developed within these other social sciences e.g. the symbolic interactionist tradition of social
psychology that developed at the University of Chicago starting with the death of Mead in
1931; or Goffman's dramaturgical model of social interaction which developed at the same
university in the 1950s. These sociological forms of social psychology in America have
become increasingly isolated from the psychological forms of social psychology that has
been the main focus of attention in the present paper. This is because the first wave in the
individualisation of the social did not begin to affect these sociological forms of social
psychology until after World War II and there was no second wave in the process. The
dominant tradition of social psychology at American universities is that of social psychology
as a sub-discipline of psychology (Jones, 1985). There is virtually no dialogue in America
between sociological forms of social psychology and the dominant psychological form of
social psychology. This is sad, but it is a reality that needs to be faced. The only dialogue
between a sociological form of social psychology and a psychological form of social
psychology is a transatlantic dialogue between those who work in the field of social
representations and those, in America, who work in the fields of attitudes, opinions, social
influence and inter-group relations. The theory of social representations is a sociological
form of social psychology. This is reflected in Moscovici's choice of an ancestor for this
tradition of research i.e. Durkheim.
When Moscovici and I convened the first international colloquium on social representations in Paris in 1979 the theory was scarcely known outside of its native France. The situation, now is dramatically different as the papers in the present issue amply testify. There is,
today, a healthy and robust tradition of research on social representations in many countries
of the world. This research is a multi-lingual enterprise. The various titles of the publication
in which this article appears reflect this multi-lingual reality. It is no longer merely a French
tradition of research in social psychology. There is now a literature in German on the subject.
The problems of persuading social psychologists in the German-speaking world to accept the
theory of social representations is akin to the problems, described above, of persuading
social psychologists in America to accept it. Whilst German culture is clearly different from
American culture America played a key role in the post-War reconstruction of universities in
Germany and this influenced the forms of psychology that flourished there in the post-War
era.
Thanks mainly to this Newsletter-like journal there is, now, a network of researchers in
social representations, world-wide, who are in touch with each other's research and with the
latest developments in the field. The Ravello conference was a huge success and another is
planned for Rio in 1994. More and more books are being published each year, in most of the
languages of Europe, on the topic of social representations. This Newsletter-journal is on the
threshold of becoming an international journal. The level and intensity of international activity in this area of research is all very gratifying. It is easy, in the midst of all this international
hullabaloo to forget that many of one's colleagues especially those who are not social
psychologists remain deeply sceptical about the value of the theory. It is always easier to
present papers in a context where others agree with us than it is to engage in a dialogue with

The Theory of Social Representations: Whence and Whither?

those who do not. Many challenges remain and it is necessary to address ourselves to these
challenges.
I have already indicated above what I believe to be the strategic next step i.e. convincing
our social psychological colleagues in America that the theory is worthy of their serious
consideration. I shall conclude by identifying what I believe to be the biggest internal
challenge facing the community of those who study social representations, and finally, what
I believe to be the most important external challenge facing that same community.
It should come as no surprise to the reader that I regard the theory of social representations and behaviourism as being in fundamental opposition to each other. Indeed, I have
myself tried to understand behaviourism in terms of the theory of social representations
(Farr, 1981, 1984). It would be easy, but foolish, in my opinion, to imagine that
behaviourism is now a spent force. It has an after-life that is easy to underestimate.
Behaviourism was the form that positivism assumed in the human and social sciences. Positivism is far from being dead. It lives on in the way in which historical accounts are written
and in Handbooks of research methods. We are likely to encounter it in its first form when
we suggest to our social psychological colleagues in America that the theory of social representations is really a sort of retro-revolution i.e. a return to an earlier stage in the development of social psychology in America when the major theoretical terms in the discipline were
more explicitly social than they have been in recent decades. This is likely to be treated as a
retrograde proposal. If one accepts a positivist philosophy of science then once a field of
study becomes a science findings are cumulative and "progress" more or less inevitable. To
suggest that earlier formulations of the same issue are superior to more recent formulations of
the same issue is to swim against a very strong tide. It is after-life of positivism in Handbooks of research methods to which I now wish to turn since this poses an important internal
challenge.
It is important that the methods of research in the study of social representations should be
compatible with the theory (Farr, 1993). Since the theory is not prescriptive in regard to the
use of any particular method there is a good deal of flexibility here which is an attractive
feature of the theory (see above). There are methods around, however, which are incompatible with the theory. The use of factor analysis, for example, is unlikely to lead to the identification of representations. Some of the methodological prescriptions of today reflect the
research orthodoxies of yesteryear. I have tried to show elsewhere that some of the methodological critiques of studies in social representations are misplaced (Farr, 1993). Some of it
derives from a notion of social psychology as a branch of natural science. This is true of calls
for the operational definitions of concepts and the rigid specification of variables. These
requirements derive from the assumption that research is replicable. This is a reasonable
assumption in the sphere of the natural sciences. It is not a valid assumption in the sphere of
the human and social sciences. It is particularly not a valid assumption in relation to the
theory of social representations. The form that the physical dimensions of time and space
assume in the human and social sciences is history and culture. Representations vary from
one culture to another and change over time within any one culture. Therefore it is not
possible to replicate a study. The social representations of psychoanalysis in England in the
1950s would have been different from those which Moscovici studied in France at that time.
If Moscovici were to repeat his study today in France they would be different again to what
they were in the mid 50s. One would not expect social phenomena to be the same. The issue
of the relation between theory and method in the study of social representations is a matter of

R. M. Farr

controversy within the community of researchers on social representations just as much as it


is a matter of controversy between that community and those outside it.
I think Moscovici was right at the outset not to begin by defining his term. I think, however, some thirty years on that this is no longer a defensible position. I think it is now necessary to identify how social representations relate to other important theoretical concepts in the
social sciences such as attitudes, public opinion, ideology etc. I think a start has already been
made in regard to attitudes (Jaspars & Fraser, 1984). Now it is time to relate social representations to their theoretical concepts. This work is particularly important if the theory of social
representations is to win acceptance in psychology itself. I think the theory does have the
potential to enrich psychology by enlarging its scope and thus passing in full the test that
Marie Jahoda set.
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The Theory of Social Representations: Whence and Whither?

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Robert M. Farr, Department of Social Psychology, London School of Economics and Political Science,
Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, Great Britain.